Thursday, March 27, 2014

"The North's Nut House"

Throughout America's Gilded Age, from the late 19th Century through the 1920s, America's Captains of Industry were erecting larger and larger palaces in their name. Despite their reputation as American Royalty, the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Wideners, and Drexels were not immune to the realities of American capitalism. Still, while the Great Depression rightly earned its place as America's greatest economic collapse, many of these titans of wealth emerged on the other side unscathed. As we learned from the recent economic recession, economic turmoil is measured in collateral damage, not justice.

But there are some human realities to which even the world's wealthiest are not immune. I'm speaking, of course, about family.

Two generations into the Industrial Revolution, America's prominent mad men were breeding even madder offspring. The Kardashians and Hiltons of the Gilded Age didn't turn to a public that praised their cash fueled insanity, these people were an embarrassment. The media, on the other hand, hasn't changed as much. Always loving a story, the brats of the 19th and early 20th centuries were a juicy scoop for the New York Times or the Philadelphia Public Ledger, but these kids couldn't turn to TLC or MTV to earn their keep selling their shame. They were unemployable financial burdens.

Plenty of the descendants of the Industrial Revolution inherited family corporations, started their own, or proudly joined the service. Some of these prominent families have so successfully traversed the complex economics of the 20th Century that they have maintained their namesake's wealth and influence for a hundred years.

But what of the others? In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the American South was a war torn wasteland of massive unfarmed plantations sitting on millions of acres of affordable land. Still recovering from the fallout of the Civil War, the governmental infrastructure was fractured and poorly taxed. While many of the North’s successful legacies of the Industrial Revolution built camps and retreats in the Adirondacks or New Jersey, the more eccentric were pissing away their inheritances on mansions they couldn't afford, toiling away as men of leisure or artists who refused to abandon the life of luxury to which they were accustom.

The South provided a solution, and quickly became the flip side to the Main Line's coin. It became the West Egg for the kids you couldn't take anywhere. Unfortunately, or perhaps interestingly, shipping off a bunch of spoiled brats to the war torn cotton fields of the South less than a lifetime removed from the Civil War created one of the most bizarre cultures in American history that few have bothered to document.

Belfair Plantation
In the early 1900s, four of the North's more prominent socialites, each as unproductive as the next, moved to Beaufort County in South Carolina just north of Savannah. From Philadelphia, Anthony Drexel, Jr. purchased Callawassie Island. William Moseley Swain, grandson of the Public Ledger's founder, purchased Belfair Plantation, demolished and replaced it with his own. Two New Yorkers, Harry Cram and Roy Rainey, joined them, each purchasing their own plantation in the region's Low Country.

What started as a retreat to hunt and waste away the days quickly turned to a bizarre mix of rum running, voodoo, and maybe even murder. Anthony Drexel married a local Savannah model, Helen Howard, a notable character in John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil renamed Serena Dawes, the protagonist's eccentric and perhaps only true friend. Listen closely next time you see the movie, she introduces her companion, "Harry Cram."

Through Helen and others, these Northern playboys found themselves immersed in the Savannah region's own social culture. But you have to remember, prior to the Civil War, not long before this foursome found itself in the Low Country, the United States was only vaguely united. The Civil War was prominently about slavery, but it also consolidated a federal republic. At the time, the South's High Society was as different from what these boys were accustomed to as that of any foreign country.

Needless to say, it got wild. To this day, local folklore in the Low Country tells tales of the parties on Callawassie Island and at Belfair Plantation. One in particular tells of a lavish outdoor soiree at Belfair Plantation where a guest wearing an expensive diamond - locals swear it was the Hope - was attacked by a goat who proceeded to eat the necklace. Guests slaughtered the goat to retrieve the diamond, promptly roasted the animal, and the answer to "What's for dinner?" presented itself. 

While the elite partied with unfettered regard, they didn't go unseen. Rum running in the region was huge and throughout Prohibition these parties were anything but dry. Ships would anchor off the coast of the Low Country, just inside international waters in such numbers that it looked as though another city sat atop the ocean. Barrels of rum would be dropped in the sea and retrieved on the shore.

Belfair Plantation
The South struggled for decades with reconstruction, primarily focused on returning order to its urban centers. Its rural regions, still largely abandoned, were also largely ignored. What author Baynard Woods, in his book Coffin Point: The Strange Cases of Ed McTeer, Witchdoctor Sheriff, referred to as "the North's Nut House" was allowed to play unchecked.

But Sheriff Ed McTeer, Beaufort County's youngest sheriff, found an unusual way to tackle what had become an equally unusual situation: voodoo. The region's wealthy plantation owners continued to hide their debauchery behind a thick veil of money that flowed in from their parents and grandparents in New York and Philadelphia. Meanwhile, there were forgotten parties that lived amongst their opulence unseen.

The South's freed slaves resided in the marshland around these plantations and lavish estates, a tight and expectedly suspicious community segregated from Savannah and ignored by the law. McTeer recognized their presence and knew this community had answers, but he had no way to get them. Many of the freed slaves practiced a mix of Native American, Caribbean, and African religions known as hoodoo or voodoo, and McTeer found his answers by becoming one of them.

Sheriff McTeer, whether he believed what he practiced or not, found himself a prominent Witchdoctor rivaling the Low Country's foremost practitioner of mysticism, Dr. Buzzard, whose wife also makes an appearance in Midnight as Minerva.

It took time, but McTeer found a front row seat to the insidious activities on Callawassie Island and Belfair Plantation. Although many in the South remain tight lipped about its history, a cohesive series events can be tethered together in stories that have emerged in whispers. Considering the bizarre history of the region the more spiritually curious may wonder, when William Swain's son, Bill was found dead at the bottom of his staircase at Belfair in 1948, was it the tragic result of a parlor trick for which he was known, was it the caretaker who was acquitted, or was something more mystical at play?

To date, very little of "the North's Nut House” remains. Belfair Plantation was demolished for a resort community and the region is prominently known for Hilton Head Island, luxury homes, and golf. What little that does remain, remains in Savannah. A portrait of the Public Ledger's founder, William Moseley Swain, hangs in the main hall of Mercer House, home of Midnight's main character, Jim Williams.

Perhaps William's quote from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil best summarizes the North's legacy in the Low Country: "There's only two things that interest me: work, and those trappings of aristocracy that I find worthwhile. The very things they're forced to sell when the money runs out. And it always runs out. And then all they're left with is their lovely manners."

Additional historical research provided by Michael Gaines.

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